Town of Amherst wades into debate over controversial names

On Monday, the Town of Amherst voted in favour of a motion to have staff produce a report "looking at the movement to rename towns, streets and monuments that celebrate past war heroes whom, seen through today's ethical lens are not people who behaved in ways that we respect today."

Some historians say town's namesake wanted to murder Indigenous people with smallpox blankets

Jeffrey Amherst was a British general during the Seven Years' War in New France. (Thomas Gainsborough/National Portrait Gallery)

A small Nova Scotia town is dipping its toe into a national debate: Should places named after past war heroes who are now considered controversial be renamed?

On Monday, the Town of Amherst voted in favour of a motion from Coun. Jason Blanch to have staff produce a report "looking at the movement to rename towns, streets and monuments that celebrate past war heroes whom, seen through today's ethical lens are not people who behaved in ways that we respect today."

"Being as this issue has been in the news, I just simply put forward a request that staff would bring council up to speed at a further meeting about what has happened with this movement of renaming things," Blanch said in an interview with CBC Radio's Mainstreet before the council meeting.

Forgotten history, council limits

Amherst is named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a British general who served during the Seven Years' War in New France and modern-day Nova Scotia. But some historians say Amherst wanted to murder Indigenous people by giving them blankets infected with smallpox.

Although he's lived most of his life in Amherst, Blanch said he didn't know about the general's past until other areas named after Amherst began making headlines.

Amherst Street, which runs through downtown Montreal, will be renamed. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"[Edward] Cornwallis has gotten a lot of play in the media. I know that Amherst Street in Montreal will be renamed," said Blanch.

Cornwallis, a governor of Nova Scotia, was a British military officer who founded Halifax in 1749. The same year, he issued the so-called scalping proclamation, offering a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi'kmaq person.

In 2011, the Halifax Regional School Board voted to rename Cornwallis Junior High School. The Cornwallis Street Baptist Church is in the process of looking for a new name.

A debate has been ongoing for years about whether a statue of Cornwallis in downtown Halifax should be removed.

Beginning the conversation

"We have a choice to hide from that history or to begin the conversation and if we begin the conversation then everybody in Amherst will know the story," said Blanch.

Edward Cornwallis founded Halifax in 1749. Later that year, he issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq people. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

The councillor said he doesn't know if renaming the town is the right move, but he understands why some people would want it to change.

"We're seen as honouring someone who had a very different ethic than we do today. But in a sense, it was 250 years ago. Are people really honouring Amherst any longer? I don't think anyone really knows who he was or what he did," said Blanch.

He expects the report will be brought to council in a few months.

"I wouldn't tell you outrightly that I'm against the idea. I would ultimately want the people of the community of Amherst to make that type of decision."

'No appetite to try to rename our town'

David Kogon, the mayor of the Town of Amherst, said there was a great discussion at the council meeting. 

"There was no feeling expressed by anyone on our town council to consider changing the name of our town," Kogon told CBC News in an email. "We have a brand, a current identity that is extremely tolerant and accepting of people of all creeds, colours and religions. We boast about our diversity."

Kogon wrote changing the name of the town could also be very expensive — "multiple millions of dollars in the public as well as the private sector."

"While we in no way condone General Jeffery Amherst's role in the attempted extermination/expulsion of the Indigenous people … there is no appetite to try to rename our town at this time."

'This guy was murderous'

Bernie Francis, a linguist from Membertou First Nation, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet in an interview Friday he supports the idea of renaming Amherst: "No question about it."

He also said he doesn't think there needs to be a debate to rename the town.

On Monday, the Town of Amherst voted in favour of a staff report on a possible name change. (Robert Short/CBC)

"Should there be a big discussion? Should there be, you know, a fight? … The evidence is there quite clearly that this guy was murderous and he did a number on the Mi'kmaq people," said Francis, pointing to Amherst's apparent role in advocating the use of smallpox-laced blankets against Indigenous people.

"We have to get history right. And so far, the side of the history we know about is the side that was written by the people who committed these atrocities. That's not good enough."

One notable example of a community changing its name is Kitchener, Ont.

Kitchener was once called Berlin, but it changed its name more than a century ago on Sept. 1, 1916 because of anti-German wartime sentiment.

About the Author

Anjuli Patil

Reporter

Anjuli Patil is a reporter and occasional video journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team.

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet